It was pitch-black out. Even the moon was hiding behind the clouds overhead. For the last three evenings the clouds had blown in, and each day they had evaporated beneath the heat of the sun. Tonight the heat seemed more oppressive than the last two. The cover above kept the heat from going anywhere, the air was thick, stagnant, and his clothes were damp from the humidity and sweat.
He leaned forward and peered into the darkness. His eyes just weren’t what they used to be. He wished he could see the fence. He may not be able to see it, but he knew exactly where it was. Thirty years ago he had carefully set the boards into place. Between maintenance and painting each year he not only knew the location of each board, he also knew every knot, every bow in the wood.
He was tired, but no more than was usual for him. Partial sleep went with the aged, although he had been happy with his amount of sleep before the vandalism had started two months ago. The way he looked at it was that it had escalated last week with the tearing up of his late wife’s flower bed. He had tolerated the attempt to saw off the lower limb of the great oak in the side yard. That old tree had fought back, and the limb that each of their kids had sat and played on for all of their growing up years, was still strong and nicely filled out with leaves and flowers. He had been unhappy with the digging up of his vegetable garden; nothing beat a tomato sandwich made with Brandy Wine tomatoes freshly picked from his own garden. But the digging up of the flowers his wife had planted and tended for so many years? That was not acceptable.
Which was why he was sitting here, and, like the two nights before, one hand gripped the barrel of the gun lying across his knees and the other was curled around the trigger mechanism. He didn’t really expect the hoodlums to show up until one or two in the morning, but he would be ready when they did. They had picked the wrong “old guy” to harrass. He would have been happy if they could have been stopped by the law enforcement officers, but as the sheriff had said a couple of weeks ago, by the time he got the call, the perpetrators were long gone.
Last week, his closest neighbor, whose yard had also been vandalized, had lost a dog. One that had barked at night at everything that moved. Perhaps the dog had merely gotten lost in the woods behind their houses, but the circumstances had pointed at a more sinister meaning in the absence. The sheriff had looked worried when he heard that report, but what could he do? There was never enough money to properly staff the local department.
Suddenly, the crickets and cicadas ceased their song. In a matter of seconds, the shotgun was raised to his shoulder, safety off, and pointing to the right of the front gate. The slight rustling he had heard, stopped as soon as the sound of the safety clicked off.
“Stop!” his voice boomed. No noise. “I have a gun, and I will use it!” Again, no noise. Well, what was he supposed to do now? He’d figured that they would run for it as soon as they realized someone was there. He’d planned on filling their backsides with buckshot, ‘course they were a little early.
“Come forward!” He heard a soft thud as a body landed inside the fence and began to shuffle forward.
Only sounded like one...he wondered where the rest were. Maybe this one had been early to the party.
A soft stutter came from the dark form moving slowly toward the porch, “Dddon’t shoooot.” As he neared the porch, the dark clouds parted to reveal a young man. In his early twenties, he held a soft sack in his right hand, and he sure didn’t look like someone who would waste his time running around ruining a neighborhood.
“IIII…jjjust heard about Mrs. Finn’s passing,” the young man paused as the gun was lowered back to its resting place, and continued, “I wwwanted to leave a kind of…well, a kkkkind of memorial to her.” He gestured at the sack he was holding and shrugged sheepishly.
The elder man pointed at the chair opposite, and the boy took the seat laying the bag on the porch beside him. In next ten minutes of quiet conversation, they renewed their acquaintance. The man had quickly recalled a lonely, freckle-faced, stuttering neighborhood kid his wife had taken under her wing ten years ago, tutoring every day after school and on weekends too. He remembered the time the boy had showed up with a few too many bruises, and his wife had insisted he go with the sheriff to visit single mother and together they had persuaded the deadbeat boyfriend to take a hike. A few years later, his wife had come back from their vacation early to attend the boy’s graduation. After his wife passed, he hadn’t had any contact with the boy or his mother, but a vague memory that the boy had joined the army—part of his own former unit.
Now, the boy confirmed that the old man’s memory was accurate, and that he had returned home in the last forty-eight hours. He then asked what the shotgun was for.
As the old man told the reason for the weapon, he was gratified to see the indignation on the boy’s face when he heard what had happened to his beloved teacher’s flower garden. As they talked the night had grown later, and moonlight disappeared. Around one in the morning, the old man handed over the weapon and the young man crept out into the dark night. At ten after, from the porch, the man’s voice boomed out, “Stop”, and a clicking of the shotgun, from behind the boys climbing the fence, froze them into place.
By three in the morning, the sheriff was gone and the last of the boys had been escorted off of the property by their parents. They would be back, back to repair the damage that could be repaired, and then they would have a busy summer, trimming lawns, painting fences, and running errands for their victims. The young man would be back too, tomorrow. He had been invited to come back for a late lunch of grilled cheese and canned tomato soup.
Before turning off the kitchen light and heading to bed, the man paused to examine one of the many pictures sitting on the buffet table. It had been the first picture he had taken after buying his now-old camera. It showed a small boy sitting on the top step of the porch, a paper tablet lay on his knees and a pen was tightly clutched in his hand. His body was angled toward the woman planting flowers in the bed below. Only her profile was showing but she was smiling at what the boy was saying.
Later that evening, his wife had announced to him that the boy was going to “make it”. Although she had been past her school teaching days, he had still recognized the terminology she used when her problem students had reached the point where they had finally absorbed the reading lessons taught. Remembering she had shown him a report the boy had done, he opened the buffet drawer and went through the stack of neatly stacked papers copied reports from her old students. Ahh, there it was. It didn’t look like much to him but she had always placed her treasures here. Two tests were stapled together. It was obvious the top was the older, with a dismal “F” placed in its upper corner, the questions hadn’t been answered—probably not even understood as a labored intensive written “no” and “yes” had been printed next to questions that were asking for more of a response; the second page had a much improved score of “B” with a note from the teacher written below. It was obvious from the labored but well written answers that the boy had been able to read and understand the questions, a few had the wrong answer and the teacher had taken off a couple of points for them. In the note the teacher had written “Excellent! If you had answered the bonus question, this grade would have been an A! Good work!”
After school the obviously proud-boy had brought the test straight to his wife—his after-school teacher. She had him sit down on the top step of the porch and on the tablet shown in the picture, write the bonus question out and then the answer. On the paper he now held, he could see the bonus question, but his wife hadn’t kept the paper from the tablet. The question, obviously made for obtaining easy bonus points read “How many friends do you have?” Now, as then, he wondered what the boy had answered on the tablet of paper. The boy likely wouldn’t remember after all these years.
The man knew that his wife wouldn’t have approved of the shotgun that had been utilized tonight, but thanks to the former pupil’s arrival, it hadn’t been used in the way that had been originally intended. The vandals had turned out to be once-brave, now-scared twelve-year-olds who would benefit from the newly-alerted parents who promised to attend promptly to their offspring’s needs. His anger had disappeared around the time he had seen how young the boys were. He was thankful that the young man had showed up when he did. Tonight he had realized once again how much he missed his wife’s calming influence over him and was grateful that her influence had lived on through the young man’s wise actions and suggestions.
With a tired sigh he replaced the papers in the drawer. As he turned to leave the room he spied the sack the young man had forgotten, hanging on the kitchen chair. Sheer curiosity made him pick up the bag and empty the contents onto the table. It was plain to see that the items had been chosen with care. He found a small cross, significance unknown to anyone but the boy. Probably to post in remembrance, as he had seen others do to mark in memory of those gone. Next out of the bag, was a hastily put together, string-tied bundle of flowers, mostly daisies and a couple of quickly fading daffodils. Then a large “Texas-style” pencil that he recognized as being a special gift his wife had given to her students when they worked hard. Last out of the bag was a much battered tablet of paper. He recognized it immediately. He opened it and paged to where the unpolished writing occurred, “How many friends do you have?” His mind flashed back to the boy laboring over the pad of paper…equally unpolished was the answer written. An answer that started “None” was crossed out and the answer “ONE” was written beside it.
The man was positive that was the moment he had caught his wife’s smile in his picture. The moment when his wife had learned that the boy considered…her—his friend.
The rest of the page was not empty though. In a smooth confident hand, another answer had been recently posted below. He read it, smiled, replaced it and the cross into the sack, went and got water for the flowers and then went to bed. He would return the items to the boy tomorrow and the young man could set up his memorial anywhere on the property he wanted.
His last thought before falling asleep was of the newly-penned answer written at the bottom of the paper, and it prompted another smile.
To the question “How many friends do you have?” The once boy, now nicely turned out young man, had written, “Many. But I’ll never forget you, the first best-friend I ever had.”
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I’m not big on crying, but this wonderful story brought tears to my eyes several times. As a tough, world hardened man, it is nice when life allows me to feel those rare moments of tenderness.
In the third paragraph from the end, you write, “He would return the items to the boy tomorrow and young man could set up his memorial anywhere on the property he wanted”. I think it would sound smoother if a, “the” was added before the word, “young”.
Thank you again for several moments of tenderness.